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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Herbalist

One of the biggest events in literary Ireland over the past two years has been the publication of The Herbalist by Penguin Ireland.  It is written by Niamh Boyce who was the Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the year in 2012. 
If you see Niamh Boyce's debut novel in the shop then you should buy it and read it. Now I know Niamh from her poetry mostly and the odd short story in magazines and journals that I've seen and I've always admired her work. I was completely impressed reading this novel which is set in 1930's Ireland where censorship of books is rife and morality in society is to a large extent dictated by the Catholic Church.  Isn't it wonderful to have a new voice in Irish literature that has the perspective of all that has gone down the river (the river is important in this book) since the '30s and especially in most recent years; the downfall of the church, the Magdalen laundries etc.?
I loved that there was an element of magic and fantasy included in the book that is blended with religious faith which is a uniquely Irish thing and Boyce is a real Irish storyteller.  I loved the imagery of birds and wings manifest in the blackbirds in Sarah's bedroom and where Carmel greets fate.  (If you believe in fate).  I also loved the easy intimacy with which the story of the book is told, again this is the sign of a fine writer.  The characters in the book are very engaging.  Emily, the young girl who befriends the Herbalist is a real knave, as is the Herbalist himself.  This is a book about women, their relationships, their dreams, their search for independence.  And poor Rose, indeed poor Rose.
My favourite part of the book is when Aggie and Emily rescue Sarah from the Herbalist's cottage and escape upstream in Biddy the boat.  To say anymore would be to give too much away. 


  1. hi orla - I don't know if I'm commenting twice, hope not, the computer is eating my comments these days:)
    Just wanted to say I'm delighted to read this, so interesting to hear the parts you enjoyed, and thanks for taking the time to post your response. I've been ill these past few days and not very active online or off, so its great to log on and see a review like this:) Thanks! And enjoy the heat wave:)

  2. You're welcome Niamh. I hope you feel much better soon. It was fascinating to see how you would write a book. Take care.